A month in the world’s largest “astronomy park”

athabasca falls river peter mcmahon jasper

I was feeling a bit melancholy at the end of this month – and not due to the end of the warm season here in Ontario, or the ominous approach of Halloween (which I actually really love.) I was mourning the end of what felt like one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments – Like a kid at the end of a great season of summer camp, not knowing if they’ll ever be back:

(Above: The river widens at midnight below Jasper’s Athebasca Falls (click for full-res to see the extent of stars. Image: Peter McMahon)


For most of October, I spent the month living in the Canadian Rockies as astronomy-writer-in-residencefor Jasper National Park – I’d proposed and helped create the world’s largest “astronomy park” or dark sky preserve there the year before.

(Above: Peter – far-left, next to screen – talks to a group of approximately 200 guests at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge about stargazing in Canada’s national parks)
mountain_galleries_presentation_crowd jasper
Yuichi and I presenting to a crowd of about 100 at Jasper Park Lodge's Mountain Galleries on Oct 21

Sharing astronomy in the mountains

While in Jasper this month, I worked on astronomy-related writing projects (my next column for Sky News magazine and a few proposals for new kids books I’d been asked to do by my publisher.) I also gave what averaged out to an astronomy talk nearly every business day (from “wilderness astronomy” destinations across Canada, to space tourism for kids 9-99, to something I came up with for the restaurants in the park called “2011: A Space Entrée”)

I also did more than a dozen day and night-time stargazing sessions with several hundred visitors to the park and Jasper residents. In almost every case, the skies were clear enough to train telescopes and  image-stabilized binoculars from Telescopes.ca as well as GPS starfinders and iPad apps on Jupiter (and 3-4 of its 63-known moons), the Perseus Double star cluster, the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy and more. In the image here, we checked out fine details on the Moon with two large 10″ Dobsonian telescopes.

maligne canyon peter mcmahon jasper

Moonlight over the falls from Bridge 1 at Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park (the area at upper-left is directly overhead, while the area at lower right is two degrees from the photographer’s shoes. Image: Peter McMahon)

The experience also afforded me the chance to photograph Jasper at night with a new 6.5mm fisheye lens that let me to capture moonrise over waterfalls and galaxies rising over canyons.

RASC Edmonton astronomer looks through Peter's Skywatcher Heritage 130 (courtesy Telescopes.ca) on the VIA Rail trip to the Jasper Dark Sky Festival on Oct 21

I even got to pull off some stunts, like showing folks telescope views of the Sun and the Moon on a moving train that was taking them to Jasper’s inaugural dark sky festival.

Just the beginning…

When I think of all the first happening in this park and the crowds already gathering for a look through the telescope eyepieces, I start to dream of the historical plaques that might mention Jasper’s long history as a night sky destination…and some of the people I know in the coming decades and beyond:

Jasper Dark Sky Festival attendees view the International Space Station passing overhead on Oct 22, some using Canon IS Image Stabilizer binoculars from Telescopes.ca

People like Gloria Keyes-Brady, Parks Canada’s head of interpreters in Jasper, who first got excited about a dark sky designation as I started to describe what it entailed back in March 2010.

Or Jasper marketing manager Rogier Gruys, who spent every possible opportunity on every clear night for half a year photographing and taking light meter readings for putting together Jasper’s DSP application.

Or park head interpreter Brian Catto, who carried out the bulk of the actual astronomy interpretive programming in the park during and after its record-breaking designation.

Or Tourism Jasper CEO Maggie Davison, who constantly asked “How can we make this happen” on everything from bringing me in as astro-writer-in-residence to creating magical experiences for dark sky festival attendees.

Orion over Athabasca falls in the moonlight in early October
Jasper's Athabasca Falls in the moonlight in early October, under (from left-to-right) The Big Dipper, Draco, Gemini, and Orion

Or Tourism Jasper CEO Maggie Davison, who constantly asked “How can we make this happen” on everything from bringing me in as astro-writer-in-residence to creating magical experiences for dark sky festival attendees.

Special thanks HAS to go out to two of my sponsors in-particular:

Telescopes.ca for having the faith in me as a brand to loan and (in many cases) give me telescopes and binoculars to show people the sky in all these wonderful locations. And to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, for believing in me and this project enough to supply in-kind for part of my food AND to put me up in a suite to live, work, and otherwise be based out of, for the entire month of October.

October stars above the pool at the main lodge on Lac Beauvert at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge

Bye-bye mountain : (

The unhappy task of watching the mountains recede in my rear-view mirror came after what seemed like another lifetime.

On the way out of the park, I looked back with glassy eyes at the entrance to the world’s largest dark sky preserve – not because I thought I’d never be back, but because I knew I’d always be back.

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